NEW YORK — America has spoken: NFL over “American Idol.”
For the seventh consecutive year, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has topped the season’s television ratings, as measured by Nielsen. That edges the six straight years for Fox’s “American Idol” (2005-06 through 2010-11).
The football games averaged 18.2 million TV viewers in 2017, a 29 percent margin over the runner-up, “Thursday Night Football” on CBS.
Fred Gaudelli, who produces the broadcasts, credits the scheduling of headline games each Sunday night — NBC did not flex any contests from daytime to night time last season — as well as the NFL’s hold on sporting America.
“One of the things that has allowed ‘Sunday Night Football’ to achieve this record is that when the NFL decided to take its marquee prime-time game off Monday and put it on Sunday, they would do all in their power to make sure Sunday nights would become successful,” Gaudelli says. “The flex schedule, the marquee matchups, week in and week out.
“This is now the 13th season for ‘Sunday Night Football,’ and the NFL has maintained that commitment, and that is a major reason why people are not tired of tuning into the prime-time game after a full day of football on Sunday.
“It’s usually an outstanding attraction and there are big stars in the game … combined with all the people who work on the show, people want to make sure they are not skipping watching the game.”
They aren’t. While all sports ratings are declining, NBC’s remain at the top for its Sunday prime-time programming.
The network also tracks what it calls Total Audience Delivery, including digital viewers. That number, which measures average minute viewing across broadcast and digital, was 18.4 million.
Of course, as Gaudelli notes, Americans are in a transition period in their viewing habits, watching how and when they want to watch.
“A lot of viewing has gone to the computer to the tablet and to the phone, and there’s still not any exact measurement of how many people truly are watching,” he says. “Our ratings may have declined, but not nearly at the rate of the rest of prime-time TV has declined.”
That being said, sports in general and the NFL in particular have a huge edge over other programming. In this day of instantaneous social media information and feedback, if you aren’t watching the action live, you’re behind the game.
“In the era we are now living in, live is so much of a bigger deal than it has ever been before,” Gaudelli says.
“Everyone is tuned into it at the same time, and the national conversation probably is a little greater because live is kind of its own animal right now.
“And there’s the tremendous drama that comes with the NFL.”
When NBC got back into the NFL business, it wisely went with a news-oriented studio show. The advantage of televising a Sunday night game is obvious. The network could respond to the stories of the day, something the jockfest daytime shows don’t attempt.
That approach not only has brought critical praise, but eyeballs and ears for “Football Night in America” and “Sunday Night Football.” The pregame show is the highest rated of any network’s.
“We try to tell compelling stories and use an innovative approach,” Gaudelli says. “But we’re also trying to satisfy the hunger of the football fan. I know they appreciate that.”